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We Can Be Happy Underground

From the “Further Readings” section at the back of Paul Collin’s wonderful Banvard’s Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn’t Change The World:

There is one very simple way to see what Beach’s railway [19th century New York’s secret, unfinished pneumatic subway] looked like, and blown up far larger than any plate in this book could manage. Go to a Subway shop–the fast-food chain, you know, where you can buy a six-inch Cold Cut Trio?–and lo! Pasted upon the walls are pictures of Beach’s invention. Whoever was designing the chainwide decor for Subway simply clipped out a bunch of old public-domain illustrations of subways, including three that originally ran in Scientific American in the 1870s. Look for the pictures that depict an almost perfectly round (save for a slight groove in the bottom) brick-lined subway tunnel, and a rounded subway car interior. These are Beach’s own handpicked illustrations for what was to be an ultra-million-dollar venture. Graze pensively on your Baked Lay’s Sour Cream and Onion chips. Ponder the vagaries of ambition.

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The City and The City

The making of Ephemicropolis from Peter Root on Vimeo.

O. Henry, “The Duel” (1910):

Your opponent is the City. You must do battle with it from the time the ferry-boat lands you on the island until either it is yours or it has conquered you. The battle is to decide whether you shall become a New Yorker or turn the rankest outlander and Philistine. You must be one or the other. You cannot remain neutral.

John Berger, “Keeping a Rendezvous” (1987):

Every city has a sex and an age which have nothing to do with demography. Rome is feminine. So is Odessa. London is a teenager, an urchin, and in this hasn’t changed since the time of Dickens. Paris, I believe, is a man in his twenties in love with an older woman.

To which some droll New Yorker replied: “Albany is an old man in a deli, trying to send back soup.”

Walt Whitman, “Song of the Broad Axe” (1856):

The great city is that which has the greatest men and women. If it be a few ragged huts it is still the greatest city in the whole world.

All yoinked from the most recent Lapham’s Quarterly.

London, Ontario is of course a student with Ugg boots and big sunglasses. (I kid because I love.)

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Old News: Guinness is Good for You

Another blast from my blogging past, this one from a long time ago in a Livejournal far, far away: Alec Guinness on Star Wars, The Simpsons, syphilis, and Marlene Dietrich’s alien lover.

[Edited to add: Hey, Carrie Fisher has a blog!]

Guinness is Good for You

(Originally published December 6, 2002.)

I had some time to kill on campus the other day, so I parked myself in a comfy chair in Lamont Library and read A Positively Final Appearance, by Alec Guinness. It’s Guinness’ journal for the last few years of his life. I recommend it; like him, it was funny and wise and occasionally laser-sharp and only a little bit sad. The 80-something Guinness was, as we all know, weary of his unshakeable association with Obi-Wan Kenobi, but still plugged in to the popular culture: he was addicted to The Simpsons and had good things to say about the Leo diCaprio / Claire Danes version of Romeo and Juliet. There are lots of funny stories in there, in the Peter O’Toole-esque raconteur vein. In fact O’Toole and Guinness were buddies, from the same generation of gin-soaked British actors up to absolutely no good. Highlights include:

  • The story of a scandalous stage production of Peter Pan in the 1930s in which Nana contracted syphilis from an affair with Smee. (NB: Nana was the dog.)
  • The fact that Marlene Dietrich used to drive out into the California desert every New Year’s Eve for a date with “a well set up gentleman from outer space”—when Guinness asked Dietrich what the spaceman looked like, she said, “Handsome, darling, and dressed all in silver.”
  • Some nice, unfashionable fondness for the Royal Family, and impatience with the beatification of Princess Diana.
  • And, of course, the following oft-told tale:

A refurbished Star Wars in on somewhere or everywhere. I have no intention of revisiting any galaxy. I shrivel inside each time it is mentioned. Twenty years ago, when the film was first shown, it had a freshness, also a sense of moral good and fun. Then I began to be uneasy at the influence it might be having. The bad penny dropped in San Francisco when a sweet-faced boy of twelve told me that he had seen Star Wars over a hundred times. His elegant mother nodded with approval. Looking into the boy’s eyes I thought I detected little star-shells of madness beginning to form and I guessed that one day they would explode.

‘I would like you to do something for me,’ I said.

‘Anything! Anything!’ the boy said rapturously.

‘You won’t like what I’m going to ask you to do,’ I said.

‘Anything, sir, anything!’

‘Well,’ I said, ‘do you think you could promise never to see Star Wars again?’

He burst into tears. His mother drew herself up to an immense height. ‘What a dreadful thing to say to a child!’ she barked, and dragged the poor child away. Maybe she was right, but I just hope the lad, now in his thirties, is not living in a fantasy world of secondhand, childish banalities.

“A fantasy world of secondhand, childish banalities.” That ought to be the tag line for my website!

I love that story. I’m going to start telling it, and end with the punch line, “… and that boy grew up to be … me.”